Friedrich A. Hayek, Max Weber and the Anthropocene

By Paul-François Tremlett

In a 2007 essay titled ‘Prophecy and the Near Future’, Jane Guyer developed a series of observations about how evangelical Christians and neoliberals conceive of time. She concluded that for both, the near future has disappeared. Action for the future is postponed indefinitely, premised upon an overwhelming sense of individual fallibility in the face of an inscrutable even unknowable world. In this short post, I bring Hayek and Weber together again to think about time but with regard to climate change, capitalism, individualism and Protestantism.

Friedrich A. Hayek’s concerns are not merely those of an economist: he is a social theorist and a philosopher, seeking to establish “true” individualism as a theory of society (1949: 6). He contrasts a fallible individual against the state. For Hayek, it is better for individuals to pursue their albeit narrow, private interests – the things that they can know – than surrender those interests and that knowledge to the plans of some seemingly beneficent, all-knowing state. Order and freedom are secured, according to Hayek, when individuals are free to pursue their interests and not when some arrogant collective body decides what it cannot know namely, the best interests of all. The scope of individual action described by Hayek is ultimately circumscribed by the occult forces of the market that allegedly translates every small decision-action into a larger and more perfect social formation, towards which “humility” (1949: 32) is, for Hayek, the most appropriate attitude.

Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism concerns the psychological effects of ‘salvation anxiety’ on action. The Protestant belief in predestination generates a sense of human fallibility and powerlessness as to what can be known about God’s will but also about the wider world, precipitating psychological stress and a narrowing of attention to proximate material interests as proxies for private, spiritual ones. Weber concludes with a pessimistic warning as to the sustainability of the Protestant-capitalist formation his book describes: it will last “until the last ton of fossilised fuel is burnt” (2002: 123) he suggests, starkly.

The trouble with climate change – putting aside its potential for our extinction – is that it precisely requires individuals to cease only being concerned with their own private interests and to recognize that, at least when it comes to climate, there really is something beyond the fallible human individual – something that might be called science or the scientific community – that, galvanised by national and international institutions, really does have the necessary knowledge to compel us to act not selfishly but sociologically. I wager that, if humans do survive the impending climate crisis, Protestantism, individualism and capitalism won’t survive with them.

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Religious Studies and studying? Restraint and Celebration

Religious festivals involve a range of social practices. From having an annual drink with acquaintances before Christmas, office parties, spending money on gifts and eating a weeks’ worth of food in a day, and ideally fitting in all that study, juggling demands can be difficult. In this session, we think about what these religious festivals might add, and how restraint during Lent or Ramadan, followed by festivities, are different to things like dry January.

But what does this have to do with studying? Taking ideas of restraint and celebration and applying those to study, Graham Harvey and Paul-Francois Tremlett give you some space to think about potential gains vs time, acknowledging success, and when discipline can be useful in your studies.

From Student Hub Live

Scottish Nationalism “similar to religion”, says Judge

By David G. Robertson

An interesting story appeared in the Herald last week that illuminates some interesting features of the contemporary conversation about religion.

Chris McEleny was an electrician at the Ministry of Defense site in Beith, Inverclyde, and the SNP group leader on Inverclyde Council. In 2016, he announced he would be running as a candidate to become deputy leader of the SNP. He was then suspended by the MoD, and had his security clearance revoked. National security officials came to his home and asked him about his mental health, social media activity and pro-independence stance. McEleny resigned and pursued a discrimination case against the MoD, arguing that he had been fired because of his belief in independence.

But to do so, he had to argue that independence was a “philosophical belief”, and therefore a “protected characteristic” under the 2010 Equality Act. Legal precedent said that to fall under this category, his belief had to be “genuinely held”, involve “moral and ethical conviction” and relate to “weighty and substantial aspects of human life and behaviour”.

The judge ruled in his favour – impressive given that McEleny defended himself against the UK Government. In summing up, the judge said “The claimant has persuaded me that his belief in Scottish independence has a sufficiently similar cogency to a religious belief… to qualify as a philosophical belief.”

This preliminary ruling will now go forward to a full hearing, so expect to hear more about it in future. For now, I want to point out a few interesting points about how “religion” and “belief” are mobilised here.

Religion is about “genuinely held” beliefs. This could be problematic. Given that half the Jews in Israel are atheist, Scottish law would have to deny them any religious protection under this logic. Many forms of Buddhism would deny that belief was involved at all. What about sincerely held beliefs about female circumcision or witchcraft? What would we make about the many who identify as a religion but do not follow all of the rules and tenets of that religion? And if I have been raised in a religion and taken on its norms, how “genuinely held” are those beliefs? How do we test the “genuineness” of a belief? If it is not judged ‘genuine’, am I therefore lying?

Religion is about morality, and the “weighty” questions of life. Is it? Wouldn’t that make environmentalism or animal rights or the Geneva Convention religious? What counts as “weighty”? Who decides?

Religions are “cogent”. While the representatives of various traditions have a vested interest in presenting religions as internally consistent and sharing fundamental ideas, this is not true and never has been. [Try our Exploring Religions module for lots of examples].

“Belief” is never defined. Seems pedantic, perhaps, but it matters a great deal – and the fact that we all assume we know what “belief” means should start alarm bells ringing. The idea that we have a series of belief ‘statements’ in our minds that we refer to when we act is clearly untrue; we act before thought, we hold contradictory beliefs, we hold multiple beliefs at the same time, we don’t do what we think, and so on. Is my love for my wife a belief? What about that the sun will rise in the morning, or that the switch will make a light go on?

No; what is going on here is an appeal to Protestant ideas about “faith”. Religious beliefs are understood as a special kind of belief that, because it comes from God, must be protected from criticism from merely “rational” beliefs.

Religions deserve protection, but political or other beliefs do not. Because it is comparable to a religion, this nationalism needs protected by the law. But why should religion be uniquely protected? Judging from the panel on Religion in the Law at our Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective conference in February [soon to be a special issue of Implicit Religion], the issue at present seems to be mostly concerned with protecting minority groups, particularly immigrants, but problems arise as the model used is based on European Protestant Christianity. The law moves slowly, but in my experience, the legal system is willing, even keen, to listen.

Most comment on this case will revolve around the question of whether nationalism is or is not a religion, but this is really missing the point. Cases like these reveal the fault lines in how the category religion is understood in public discourse. Legal proceedings are an underused resource for analysing the public discourse on religion, and an especially important one, as it has real effects on people. My interest in religion has always been based in a fascination with the relationship between ideas and communities of people, and the law is the point where these ideas become inscribed in societies. If we as scholars are serious about wanting to be heard by the broader public, this might be a good place to focus our attention.

Extraordinary Rituals | New BBC co-production

17th August 2018 at 9.00pm sees the first episode of Extraordinary Rituals, a new OU/BBC co-production on BBC 2. This series of three documentaries explores the spectacular and emotional world of rituals, and the Academic Consultant was our own Graham Harvey.

In Indonesia the Torajans put on the most elaborate funerals on Earth to secure their loved ones a place in the afterlife, while in Japan new hi-tech cemeteries store people’s ashes behind glowing neon plaques. In Italy, a passionate bareback horserace called the Palio is the ritual which keeps fierce rivalries between the districts of Siena in check. While in Malaysia, pilgrims carry massive burdens and their bodies are pierced to show their extreme devotion to the Hindu god of war.

Rituals can inspire us, but to stay relevant they must also adapt to our modern lives. In China, 21st century teenagers sing ancient love songs in a 7th century dating ritual, and follow it up by text. In Senegal, where wrestling has become the top sport, fighters still use amulets, potions and tribal dances to give them the edge in the arena.

Rituals are woven into the survival story of humanity. Among the Inuit in Greenland a boy’s rite of passage to become a hunter still demands he must hunt a seal on the sea ice. It’s a ritual of survival, but for those families that follow tradition, it’s also key to their identity. Aboriginal culture is the oldest surviving on Earth, using fire ceremonies to shape the landscape over 50,000 years. Passed down from the ancestors, the Dow fire ceremony teaches the next generation how fire brings fertility to the landscape. Today, science has caught up – ancestral knowledge and modern technology has combined, as Aboriginal rangers protect the land by creating vast firebreaks from helicopters.

We will continue to invent new rituals, from street crews practising parkour in Gaza, to the building of a Temple at Burning Man in USA, where people leave their painful mementos before it’s burnt down as a ritual of release. These rituals could become the traditions of the future, alongside ancient ceremonies for modern times, to help us to make sense of our human experience

There’s a bunch of material at Openlearn, the OU’s free learning website, including short videos from the origins festival and several pieces on ritual by Graham Harvey. A breakdown of the episodes follows.

Ep1: Rituals – Cycle of Life | The key rituals on our journey from birth, to marriage and death. These are universal, yet we perform them in extremely different ways around the world. Rituals give us meaning, and they bind us together for the most extreme moments in the circle of life.

 Ep2: Rituals – Great Gatherings | Great Gatherings looks at rituals that bring us together in huge numbers, keep communities alive and reinforce our identity by joining the crowd. For billions of people, shared ritual experiences still help us to find where we belong and connect us to something greater than ourselves.

Ep3: Rituals – Changing World | This episode explores how rituals adapt in our changing world. How do ancient ceremonies stay relevant and when do we invent new rituals to answer our needs.

Religion and its Publics (Part 2)

Who are the new publics for the work we do in Religious Studies?

Jonathan Tuckett of the Religious Studies Project attended our Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspectives conference in February, armed with an iPhone. Drawing from the themes of the conference, he came up with some (difficult) questions to ask the attendees – including our students Theo Wildcroft and Alison Robertson, and Lecturers Marion Bowman, David Robertson and Suzanne Newcombe.

If you missed it, watch part 1 here.

Blowing the Spirit: the tradition of brass band performances at funerals in Poland.

Maciej Kierzkowski, PhD Candidate, Music

My initial interest in brass bands was sparked randomly while collecting materials to research the past of my family. I learned that my grandfather’s brother was buried without a priest, and that during his secular funeral a glassworks brass band from a nearby village performed the ceremonial functions. As well as throwing light upon my family’s history, this information made me realize the importance of the brass band in contemporary Polish culture. The main question that appeared in my mind was, how did the funeral of my ancestor look (and sound), and what particular role did the brass band play in it? The opportunity to address this question appeared soon (in 2003) while conducting research for my Masters’ thesis on the brass bands of the Mazovia region in central Poland.

This blog entry presents the original field recording of the funeral that was made in situ in Godzianów village in Mazovia region in Central Poland. It was performed by Orkiestra Dęta OSP Godzianów (the Godzianow Voluntary Fireman Brigade Brass Band), and the deceased was one of its former bandsmen. The following is translated from my original field-work notes as an outsider [click the player below to follow along with the recording – numbers in brackets refer to timings in the recording]:

[00’00] ‘Before starting the funeral ceremony, members of the band and other participants of the ritual gather in the yard in front of the house of the deceased. Musicians dressed in fireman uniforms come to the site in fire trucks. Another truck brings in other firemen that are not musicians. The instrumental configuration of the band includes: 1 clarinet in Bb, 3 alto saxophones in Eb, 2 tenor saxophones in Bb, 1 trumpet in Bb, 1 bass saxhorn in Eb, 1 baritone saxhorn in Bb,1 tenor saxhorn in Bb,1 bass drum.

[00’50] The first musical piece performed by the band is a funeral march that is played during the elevation of the coffin from the house of the deceased. At that time, alarm sirens and emergency lights of fire trucks are activated.

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Eynhallow (Land of the Finn Man) by Leila Thomson. Tapestry at the Orkney Library, Kirkwall.

Just out of reach: magic, opacity, and unknowability

Theodoros Kyriakides and Richard Irvine. 

Eynhallow (Land of the Finn Man) by Leila Thomson (above). Tapestry at the Orkney Library, Kirkwall.

Eynhallow frank, Eynhallow free
Eynhallow stands in the middle of the sea
A roaring roost on every side
Eynhallow stands in the middle of the tide

– traditional Orkney rhyme

“But what do you mean by magic?” There’s a long pause in the conversation; the anthropologist wonders whether they’ve asked the wrong question. “Well I suppose I mean… well, magic… like Eynhallow.” To those familiar with Orkney, this small ‘holy island’ is rich in stories: once upon a time a coming-and-going island, rising from the sea only to disappear, until it was won over from the shape-shifting finfolk by the use of holy salt. Still the island retains an uncanny quality: in 1990 two people were said to have disappeared into thin air after 88 were counted off an excursion ferry to the uninhabited island and only 86 were counted back on.

But it is not only the stories surrounding Eynhallow that make it a figure of magic. It is also the sense of it being simultaneously proximate, yet remote. It looms near, just between Rousay and the Orkney Mainland; and yet, surrounded by the elemental forces of the “roaring roost” – the riptides rushing past, the meeting point of the great energies of the Atlantic and the North Sea – it seems inaccessible. It fits perfectly with another explanation of the qualities of magic offered during conversation in Orkney: “a sense of wonder… but just out of reach”.

The question “What do you mean by magic?” is not a straightforward one. In fact, it is a question which can easily be turned back onto the anthropologist working on the topic. If you are someone just going about your daily routine, this is of course a very valid response to someone trying to research your beliefs and practices. Curiously enough, the fact that magic is such an open category makes this a rich question for our research in Nicosia and Orkney. Magic means different things for different people: magic for some might denote spells. For others, it is a quality of the landscape. For others, psychic readings. For others, Harry Potter movies. In other words, the question “what do you mean by magic”, far from suggesting that ‘magic’ is an irrelevance, indicates the polysemy – the rich and varied range of meaning – this word has acquired in modernity.

At the same time, this question reveals the enigmatic stance people adopt in the presence of the suggestion of magic: it is, in this sense, a topic “just out of reach”, surrounded by opacity and uncertainty. In The Empty Seashell, an ethnography of witchcraft in Indonesia, Nils Bubandt writes that “the fundamental unknowability of the other” often acts as a prerequisite to the manifestation or suspicion of witchcraft. Witchcraft is hence emergent from the fact that we cannot ‘see through’ the intentions of others. On the one hand, such witchcraft is indented in the workings of a society: it proceeds through specific instances, practices, rituals and social structures. On the other hand, the forms of magic which emerge within our fieldwork showcase how magic in contemporary societies takes multiple forms, reflecting the pluralism of beliefs and habits.

Here, we encounter a different kind of “unknowability” to once again use Bubandt’s term of choice. To return to Orkney, on the island of Rousay ideas of ‘magic’ in the landscape are attested to by the many stories which surround the Neolithic chambered cairns and standing stones. The folklore attached to these places is rich and well recorded. Yet, importantly, many layers of unknowing intervene in any given ‘encounter’ with the storied landscape: Protestant Christian attempts to rid the populace of superstition; population displacement due to clearance and emigration; population change due to incomers from beyond Orkney; secularisation. None of these strips the landscape of its potency, but each contributes to its sense of being ‘out of reach’.

Working back through these layers to understand the occluded landscape seems to generate new forms of interaction: for example, given the closure of the island’s kirks and the decline of island churchgoing, it is not altogether surprising that an archaeological site should become the setting for an island wedding rather than the kirk. Meanwhile, in recent decades modern standing stones have joined their ancient counterparts. The work involved in quarrying and erecting such stones makes this by no means a flippant undertaking, though neither is it a phenomenon that in all cases can be taken too seriously. Modern stones might be said to be “watching over us, helping us as they’ve always done”, but in another case might be said to have been erected more playfully, a landmark to direct tourists to what was built as a holiday home.

So, expanding on Bubandt’s idea of unknowability, the opacity of magic in modernity does not only mean that one is not sure of others’ intentions – it can also imply that people are never too sure of what magic might mean for them, or even if they ‘believe’ in it. Take the example of the Cypriot non-believer who still puts faith in his or her lucky pendant under situations of play. Or, the example of someone who does not attend church but finds herself reciting a trio of prayers under a certain situation of distress (one for each member of the Holy Trinity). On such occasions, pendant and prayer are both granted a semblance of automatic efficacy which Marcel Mauss identified as a central tenet of magical belief.

Why do people entertain such halfhearted beliefs if they don’t really believe in the efficacy of magic? When we ask this question, we notice that the people we talk to approach the suggestion of magic, much like their belief in it, in indirect manner. In Cyprus, many do not explicitly believe in magic, but nevertheless find that magic often occupies part of daily stories and rumours they hear, and also of childhood memories. We hence often find that we are conducting a kind of archaeology of magical beliefs, working through strata of unknowing. Magic is, nowadays, concealed under several temporal layers of personal and collective amnesia, but also recollection. We also find, however, that such social conditions don’t necessarily dilute the notion of magic amid increasing narratives and processes of unbelief and secularism, but rather grant it a vague semblance of autonomy and unpredictability. In such sense, conditions of social, political and financial uncertainty – characteristic of contemporary societies – can be understood as not erasing but rather as producing (or maybe reproducing) particular forms of modern magic. It is a world where something is left partially ungrasped and out of reach, just enough for it to keep returning.

Sacrifices | A new film about tattoos, religion and pain

Theo Wildcroft and Alison Robertson are current and former PhD candidates in the Religious Studies Department. In 2017 they had their first co-written article published for the new ‘Body and Religion’ journal. The article is titled “Sacrifices at the Altar of Transformation”, and it discusses the many and varied reasons why people might choose to include painful practices as part of their religious activity.

A first peer-reviewed publication is an important milestone in any academic career, and given the subject matter, their choice of celebration was always going to be unusual. In this short film, they reveal their journey, from first conversations, to Lillyink Tattoo studio in Reading, and back to the BASR conference where it all began. Along the way, they speculate on what the study of such practices can tell us about how human beings understand suffering.

Film by David Robertson and Theo Wildcroft. Featuring Steve from Lillyink Reading and Professor Graham Harvey as doctoral supervisor.

Fostering Creativity in Higher Education: the Case for Religious Studies

By Stefanie Sinclair

[This piece originally appeared in the Bulletin of the British Association for the Study of Religion 132 (Nov 2018). You can read the full issue here. Stefanie was the recipient of the first BASR Teaching Award, and this piece celebrates her achievement.] 

Creativity is in demand. As Gaspar and Mabic point out, “in the last decade creativity has become a mantra which is used by politicians, businessmen, employees, teachers, professors, students and others. Creativity is seen as a cure for a wide range of [social, economic and educational] problems” (2015, p. 598). It is valued as an important life skill, linked to increased levels of wellbeing and depth of learning. It can build resilience and help solve complex problems. Creativity has also been identified as an increasingly desirable graduate attribute that cannot easily be outsourced or replaced by machines in a labour market increasingly dominated by technology (Blessinger and Watts 2017, 3; Csikszentmihalyi 2006; Gauntlett 2011; Osmani et al. 2015; Rampersad and Patel 2014; Robinson 2011).

While there is wide-ranging agreement that higher education can play an important role in fostering creativity, there have been claims that it is not doing enough and there are “calls for a more rigorous approach to teaching creativity” in higher education (Rampersad and Patel 2014, 1). However, there are many different views on what creativity actually is and how its development can be best supported. Studies have, for example, found that academic staff and students in higher education often have different understandings of the concept of creativity. When interviewing academic staff from a range of subject disciplines at Liverpool John Moores University and University College London (UCL), Edwards et al. (2006) found that the academics they interviewed tended to associate creativity with originality, with being imaginative, with exploring or ‘adventuring’ for the purpose of discovery, with synthesis and making sense of complexity and with communication. A parallel study of students’ perception of creativity, on the other hand, found that students tended to associate creativity with freedom from routine and from the need to justify oneself, with expression of imagination, with independence, risk and sometimes superficiality. Students also typically described creativity as something personal and infectious (Oliver et al. 2006). These differences highlight the elusive and complex nature of this concept (Kleinman 2008, 209). Notions of creativity range from understanding it as an elite enterprise that is reserved for the talented and gifted few, to the increasingly influential understanding of creativity as a powerful collaborative process that can and should be harnessed in everyone (Rampersad and Patel 2014, 1; Robinson 2011). I find the latter particularly convincing.

However, in an environment determined by league tables, funding cuts, stifling levels of bureaucracy and the looming pressure of the REF and TEF, where students are increasingly encouraged to approach education as customers purchasing qualifications, it can be very challenging to inject creativity into the curriculum and adopt a greater focus on teaching and learning as a collaborative process of discovery and growth. So what can we do to address this? Csikszentmihalyi argues that “if one wishes to inject creativity in the educational system, the first step might be to help students find out what they truly love, and help them immerse themselves in the domain” (2006, xix). He contends that to support this process, it is important that teachers model the joy of learning and the passion for their subject discipline themselves. As Kleinman concludes, “academics need to be perceived and involved as agents in their own and their students creativity rather than as objects of, or more pertinently, deliverers of a particular ‘creativity agenda’ “(2008, 216). As part of the Open University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences teaching scholarship seminar series on ‘Creativity and criticality in online learning’ colleagues got together last summer to talk to each other about their passion for their respective subject areas – and some filmed each other talking about this on their smart phones. In the midst of stressful deadlines and piles of paperwork, many colleagues commented on how refreshing and energising they found it to remind themselves and each other of their deep passion for their subject areas and for teaching and research. In the context of the many pressures academics are facing, it is important not to lose sight of why we’re in ‘it’ in the first place, and it is important for our students to see this, too.

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The (Un)bearable Whiteness of Informationalist Religion

Syed Mustafa Ali, School of Computing and Communications, The Open University

This post continues the exploration of the ‘entanglement’ of race, religion and informational phenomena presented in my earlier work (see the bibliography at the end of the post). Following the lead of critical race and decolonial theorists, I understand ‘race’ as a global systemic/structural power formation, ‘religion’ as a tradition involving discursive and embodied practices (following the lead of anthropologist Talal Asad), and ‘information’ as “a difference that makes a difference” (following the cyberneticist Gregory Bateson).

Here, I want to focus on exploring Transhumanism and technological Posthumanism in relation to broader ‘informationalist’ currents associated with New Religious Movements (NRMs) emerging within ‘Western’ societies. By ‘informationalism’, I mean a paradigm (or worldview) in which all phenomena are held to be informational or computational in some sense. My concern is to interrogate both the what and how (that is, beliefs and practices) as well as the who and where (that is, the socio-political marking and location/situatedness) of proponents of informationalist religion(s).

I: The Transhumanist

To this end, we might begin by exploring Transhumanist and Posthumanist calls for embracing technological enhancement at various scales – individual, collective and cosmological – with a view to unpacking various tacit ‘religious’ and occult influences informing their discourses. Leading Transhumanist thinkers such as Nick Bostrom, Hans Moravec, Ray Kurzweil, Frank Tipler, and others, clearly demonstrate influences from  Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, Hermeticism, Rosicrucianism, Masonism, Kabbalah and Christian Millennialism. These influences are even clearer in the beliefs and practices of explicitly informationalist religions, such as Anthony Levandowski’s ‘Way of the Future’, Martine Rothblatt’s cosmist ‘Terasem’ movement, Giulio Prisco’s ‘Turing Church’, and Bard and Jan Söderqvist’s ‘Syntheism’.

Having established the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of such informationalist religions, we can consider their ‘who’ and ‘where’. Transhumanists, technological Posthumanists and proponents of informationalist religion tend to be wealthy white males located in ‘the West’, and the few notable exceptions only serve to confirm the rule. This is firmly supported by demographic surveys of Transhumanists, where we also find a concomitant overwhelming dismissal of the relevance of ‘race’ in their responses to questions about ethnicity and related matters.

I want to conclude by offering some critical race-theoretical and decolonial speculations as to the significance of these findings vis-à-vis contemporary socio-political developments, including the rise of the ‘alt-Right’ in the US and the ‘far right’ in Europe in the context of what human geographer Alistair Bonnett has referred to as the phenomenon of ‘White Crisis’. I suggest that an (un)bearably white informationalism needs to be understood against the backdrop of a long durée Western hegemony that is increasingly being subjected to contestation from various quarters. I further suggest that the discourse on ‘existential risk’ associated with artificial intelligence (AI) might usefully be understood as a form of ‘White Crisis’ literature, ‘entangled’ with various strands of apocalyptic thought. I will develop this thesis further in an article in a forthcoming special issue of the journal Zygon.

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